BMCR 2005.05.12

The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough: An American Journey from Slavery to Scholarship. Edited and with an Introduction by Michele Valerie Ronnick. Foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr

, , The autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough : an American journey from slavery to scholarship. African American life series. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005. xvi, 425 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0814332242 $29.95.

If you should be in the Philadelphia area between now and June 4, do stop by the Van Pelt library on the University of Pennsylvania campus. There you will find an exhibition entitled simply, “Twelve Black Classicists: the earliest contributions of African Americans to Classical Studies.” Twelve enormous portrait photographs — eleven men, one woman — are supported by twelve slender sets of biographical data. Each scholar’s display also presents some other memento: one of their books; a letter from one to another; the programme for a memorial service.

There isn’t much. But what an enormous effort of recuperation this exhibition represents. And even a small effort of historical imagination begins to flesh out the meagre biographies of these twelve remarkable people. Look at Edward Wilmot Blyden: born in the West Indies in 1832, made his career in Liberia on being refused education in the US, but nonetheless became the second black member of the APA. Or Richard Theodore Greener: born in Philadelphia in 1844, the first black student to gain a BA from Harvard, the first black member of the APA. Or William Henry Crogman: born in the Leeward Islands in 1841 and an Able Seaman for some years before getting his BA from Atlanta and making his career teaching at Clark. His book is on display. It boasts the marvellous title, “Progress of a Race — or the Remarkable Advancement of the American Negro. From the bondage of slavery ignorance and poverty to the freedom of citizenship intelligence affluence honor and trust.” In all these cases, “Remarkable Advancement” seems an understatement.

Not only do almost all these scholars’ lives span the period of the civil war in America, two of them were actually born as slaves. One of them was William Sanders Scarborough, whose autobiography is now brought to light and supplied with an impressive editorial infrastructure by Michele Ronnick, who also curated the exhibition. Amid the generally sleek and aestheticized self-presentations in the exhibition, Scarborough’s portrait stands out. Firmly planted, utterly composed, he gazes at the camera with a mixture of quiet pugnacity and contained amusement. Or perhaps I read this into his image because I have found his autobiography so compelling.

What is astonishing about this life — which is practically everything — does not leap to the eye: it must be read between the lines of decorous prose. This is no account of anguished debate or personal growth in the homo interior. Instead, it is a triumphant res gestae, designed for inspiration and edification of others from what Scarborough calls “the race”. True to the genre, there is something monumental about the accretion of names and honours, of papers given and meetings attended, of letters of congratulation transcribed wholesale.

But in the interstices comes the story that more than justifies this parade. It is astonishing that Scarborough acquired any education at all, in days when ‘the penalty for the instructor [of a slave pupil] was fine and imprisonment, and for the instructed one, severe corporal punishment’ (28). As a boy in Macon, Georgia, his parents taught him his letters (and how had they learned theirs? ‘There were clandestine schools, the number of which would have startled the South had it known of their numerous existence’ [24]). Later, a white southerner tutored the boy. By the time the Civil War begins, he is apprenticed at a shoemaker’s, where his first duty each morning after tidying up the shop is to read the newspaper to his confreres, ‘so that they might be kept informed quietly and secretly of the progress of the war’ (30). He hears the announcement of the end of the war: ‘I saw and heard as I sat perched in an open window — a joyful boy who knew now that there was a possibility of his dreams becoming a reality’ (34).

If any single thing structures this life, it is Scarborough’s reaction to an infamous saying of one John C. Calhoun, ‘that if he could find a Negro who knew the Greek syntax, he would then believe that the Negro was a human being and should be treated as a man.’1 Scarborough’s parents impressed upon him the value of education per se; Calhoun, it seems, fixed the direction it should take. Scarborough had soon exhausted the educational possibilities in the South and went on to take his BA at Oberlin; he was offered a position teaching at Wilberforce University (named after the British abolitionist) in Ohio, and there he was to remain, in different capacities and through many political vicissitudes, for the rest of his working life. The way in which he chose first to make his mark on the academic world was with a primer entitled — yes — “First Lessons in Greek”. It became a standard textbook. Three years later (1884), Scarborough was elected to the American Philological Association; he regularly gave papers at meetings of the APA until the press of duties at Wilberforce made it impossible and as regularly congratulated himself that no one had guessed the paucity of his library resources. Throughout his life, he spoke passionately in favour of an intellectual focus in black education, against those who urged vocationalism. Calhoun’s defeat was, one might think, complete.

In addition to prodigious scholarly activity, Scarborough was prominent in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, twice being chosen as delegate to Europe for Methodist Ecumenical conferences; and he was extremely active in politics, both in Ohio and nationally. On issues of race, “I wrote quite continuously for the Voice of the Negro and Howard’s Magazine on various subjects intended to be helpful in many ways” (187). To this claim is appended a list of seventeen short articles, almost all published in the space of two years (1904-5). The flow abates only when Scarborough is appointed President of Wilberforce University; later pages of the life are dominated by the anxieties of fund-raising and laments over the necessary abandonment of scholarly work and commitments. Plus ça change.

This autobiography is, as I have said, geared to edification. But now and then a painful reminder of social realities obtrudes, and we are brought hard up against the extraordinary obstacles which Scarborough had to confront. Consider this account of his trip to an APA meeting in 1894:

I went to Williams College in July and found myself on the way forced to put up with one of those situations so inconvenient and humiliating to the race. Unfortunately for me I reached Williamstown about midnight. The college was across the river and some distance from the station. As I did not care to risk crossing at that hour I applied to some parties nearby who I was told had hotel accommodations. They gave me the usual excuse, “all the rooms engaged.” Not having any acquaintance with anyone in the place I saw but one [thing] to do. I asked permission of the traction men to remain in the tool house till morning, as there was no station house. Though seeming surprised they acquiesced, and I spent a wakeful night in the tool house from which I emerged hungry the next morning to cross the river hastily and report to the learned body of which I was a member … (134)

The quiet irony of the last sentence is typical. Through such treatment, Scarborough never loses sight of his status and his due. He writes a furious letter to the New York Times on being refused a glass of water in a New Jersey resort and sets off a media storm that follows him to Europe; he withdraws from an APA meeting after similar ill treatment from a Baltimore hotel.

But on one matter, Scarborough is silent. This remarkable man married a white divorcée, Sarah Bierce, a teaching colleague; the partnership — and that is clearly what it was — lasted forty-five years, until his death. Mrs. Scarborough teaches alongside her husband, helps him with his publications, travels with him (the one significant journey he undertakes without her is clearly ruined by her absence). The peroration of the autobiography includes a tribute to her:

My home was my haven. I sought it for the minutes of rest that I could enjoy there, the quiet from outside cares and turmoil. I always found there consolation, companionship, and helpfulness, also there I always gathered strength for further struggles…. Blest is the man who has such a home and such a companion as the Giver of Gifts has vouchsafed to me. (327)

From the tenor of his account, one could never guess the external constraints on this “companionship”. Ronnick gives an example in her introduction: “an anti-mixed marriage bill appeared before the state legislature in Columbus, Ohio, in 1913. Passage of this bill could have driven [the Scarboroughs] out of Ohio, and/or outlawed their thirty-two year marriage” (17).

I commend this autobiography to you. Even after Ronnick’s assiduous groundwork, it requires an effort of historical imagination to begin to place the life in its proper context — but that is something that we, as classicists, must in any case constantly undertake in our work. Meanwhile, the future itinerary of “Twelve Black Classicists” is detailed on its website.


1. Another black classicist, Alexander Crummell, responded vigorously to this in words that deserve quoting in full: “Just think of the crude asininity of even a great man! Mr. Calhoun went to Yale, to study the Greek Syntax, and graduated there. His son went to Yale to study the Greek Syntax, and graduated there. His grandson, in recent years, went to Yale, to learn the Greek Syntax, and graduated there. Schools and Colleges were necessary for the Calhouns, and all other white men to learn the Greek syntax. And yet this great man know that there was not a school, nor a college in which a black boy could learn his A.B.C.’s. He know that the law in all the Southern States forbade Negro instruction under the severest penalties. How then was the Negro to learn the Greek syntax? How then was he to evidence to Mr. Calhoun his human nature? Why, it is manifest that Mr. Calhoun expected the Greek syntax to grow in Negro brains by spontaneous generation!” (342).